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Hearings Set for South Fox Swap

Public land debate approaches final stage

June 1, 2001 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

After years of public dispute, the fate of one of Michigan’s most spectacular parcels of public land — South Fox Island — is reaching a new and perhaps final phase.

On Tuesday, June 5, 2001, and Wednesday, June 6, 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service will hold public meetings on whether to swap public land on the island for private land owned by one of Michigan’s wealthiest and most politically influential developers. Their purpose is to gather information for preparation of an environmental impact statement on the proposed swap.

Michigan citizens own roughly one-third of this 3,400-acre gem, located in Lake Michigan off the Leelanau Peninsula. The other two-thirds is owned by David Johnson, who earned national prominence by developing the $1 billion Bay Harbor resort near Petoskey, and by contributing tens of thousands of dollars annually to state and federal Republican Party candidates. Mr. Johnson’s 2,204-acre Mirada Ranch on South Fox Island, complete with a manor house, two air strips, a magnificent barn to house champion horses, and a collection of luxury cottages, is one of the premier maritime estates in the nation.

In December, 2000, in the face of fierce public resentment, K.L. Cool, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, approved a swap plan that would give Mr. Johnson the southern two-thirds of the island, including a particularly beautiful 115-acre parcel with an historic lighthouse and a mile of breathtaking beach.

What’s so extraordinary about the proposal is the Engler administration’s eagerness to help a large campaign contributor. Mr. Kool’s December proposal would have violated a 30-year-old deed restriction, signed by both the federal and state governments, that was designed to protect public property on the island forever.

Mr. Kool also authorized his staff to pursue, on Mr. Johnson’s behalf, a state permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to build a road from the estate to the beach that would traverse a protected state dune. Constructing the road would have violated the 1976 state Sand Dune Protection Act.

Both Mr. Johnson and the state natural resources department justify the swap on the basis that it would eliminate a patchwork pattern of private and public land ownership. Mr. Johnson says divided land ownership causes a serious trespassing problem. The DNR asserts that the swap would consolidate public land holdings to make it easier to manage the land and to reduce confusion about property boundaries.

It took just a couple of months for the state’s swap plan to collapse under the weight of public opposition. In March, the Leelanau Township Board, which had oversight authority under state law, turned down the plan to build the road. And in May, the state unveiled a new swap proposal that would retain much of the original plan’s basic outlines, but keep the lighthouse and the surrounding 10 acres in public ownership.

The Michigan Land Use Institute and other organizations opposed the old plan and the new plan because citizens would lose:

  • A 115-acre parcel on the southern tip of the island, which the state acquired in 1971 for its exemplary recreational value and for providing a safe harbor for boats.
  • Critical habitat areas important for the endangered piping plover shorebird and other endangered plant species.
  • Approximately 1.3 miles of a magnificent beach now open for public enjoyment.
  • Powerful public property protections. The deed restriction on the island’s southern tip requires the state to keep the land in public ownership forever. If the state breaks this deed restriction it will set a terrible precedent by eroding the state’s credibility for protecting other lands with similar deed restrictions.
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